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Leader: Bending the arc of history towards justice and freedom

The leader from the centenary issue of the magazine.

12 April 1913

Beatrice and Sidney Webb founded the New Statesman in a spirit of optimism. They were outraged by the plight of the poor and the way the unfettered market had created monstrous inequality at a time of great technological advance. (Does this sound familiar?) They wanted their new weekly review of politics and the arts to be a reforming journal as well as a vehicle for their ideas. They believed in the rational, scientific method and in the “world movement towards collectivism”.

Theirs was a socialism of experts: technocratic, centralising, bureaucratic. Through their research – they co-founded the London School of Economics and William Beveridge worked for them as a young researcher – they helped to lay the foundations of the welfare state.

Yet their socialism of experts was flawed and often wrongheaded and its worst excesses have been deeply sedimented in the Labour tradition of “the man in Whitehall knows best”: command and control, tax and transfer. The Webbs were fellow-travellers of the Soviet Union and they were imperialists. Statists rather than liberals, they were insufficiently interested in personal freedom. Very quickly, the journal they created broke free of their influence. In 1922, Sidney Webb resigned as NS chairman, unhappy that the “paper” was too free in its criticisms of the Labour Party. “A melancholy ending to our one journalistic adventure,” Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary.

Fifteen months after the first issue of the NS appeared, Europe was plunged into the imperial slaughter of the First World War. The twin evils of Stalinism and fascism and then the long cold war would follow. However, for the British, at least, the 20th century was broadly one of progress. In common with many countries, Britain incrementally became both a more liberal and a more equal society. Universal suffrage was introduced. The National Health Service was created and a universal welfare state was established. The UK surrendered its colonial possessions and Europe was transformed from a continent of war into one of peace. Capital punishment was abolished and homosexuality was decriminalised. Laws were passed against discrimination on the basis of race, sex or disability. Through decades of struggle, the left bent the arc of history towards justice.

But today, in the aftermath of the worst financial crash the world has known, the abiding mood is one of anxiety as the gains of previous decades appear increasingly fragile. The forces of free-market globalisation have brought chaos and destruction. Recession and mass unemployment have returned to Europe as the continent has embraced collective austerity. The income gap that began to widen in the 1980s has become a chasm as a new global elite, impervious to state boundaries and reluctant to pay tax, concentrates wealth and resources in its hands. And a succession of institutions – parliament, the banks, the press, the police – have lost the trust placed in them by the public through scandal and misdeed. Social divisions long thought buried are re-emerging.

What should the response of the left be? The socialist belief in state ownership of the means of production, tested to destruction in the 20th century, has rightly been abandoned by all but the most doctrinaire.

Yet the society we wish to see remains one in which, as our first editorial put it, “health, comfort, culture, and personal freedom are the rules instead of the exceptions”. We retain our faith in the role of governments to secure these ends, while recognising that the way in which the state delivers public goods must be rethought. Only the state can redistribute wealth and power, challenge cartels, regulate financial services and create the economic conditions to stimulate growth and invest in huge infrastructure projects. Only a competent state can protect the poor and the most vulnerable.

Beholden to no party and excited by and interested in ideas, the New Statesman will remain a politically committed magazine and now also a website. The project of the left has been transformed over the past 100 years: the forward march towards worldwide collectivism was halted long ago. Its successor, the doctrinaire faith in the moral as well as economic superiority of market forces, has proved equally misguided. The challenge today is to restore social solidarity and justice as aims of democratic government no less urgent than the achievement of individual prosperity.

You can read the first New Statesman leader from 12 April 1913 here

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.